The Kenwood Press
News: 05/01/2018

October fires have deeply impacted SDC closure process

‘Eldridge Trust’ idea floated to guide SDC transition

Jay Gamel

The impact of October’s firestorm has yet to be fully understood, but it seems that it has fundamentally affected the process of deciding what to do with the lands and buildings of the Sonoma Developmental Center after the last patients leave this year.

The loss of thousands of homes and the subsequent inflation of building costs have delayed a $2.5 million, two-year study of the transition process by Wallace Roberts Todd (WRT), an urban planning and landscape design firm which has been conducting an extensive site assessment of the Development Center’s 142 buildings and grounds, including figuring out the best future uses for the property.

The disposition of SDC’s 900 acres of open space and numerous buildings has been of great concern to many people in Sonoma Valley, who organized early to ensure that local concerns were taken into account when repurposing the property. They include Sonoma County, the Sonoma Land Trust, the Sonoma Ecology Center, Sonoma Mountain Preservation, and others who have a strong interest in what happens next.

Pressure to speed transition process

After closure, the cost of keeping the buildings in a “warm shutdown” mode – lights, heat, security – could run as high as $15 million a year, a cost that neither the State’s Department of Developmental Services (DDS) nor its Department of General Services (DGS) can bear for long. DDS has operated the facilities until this year, and DGS will assume responsibility for it after the patients are gone. Legislators are now scrambling to assemble funds for the transition process in the 2018-2019 state budget, which will be in place by August. Keep in mind that this funding necessity has been known for over five years, since the state decided to shut the place down.

A Community Advisory Committee (CAC), that includes representatives of many local groups, was set up by WRT to assist in their analysis. In a non-public meeting of the CAC on March 22, Dan Kim, director of DGS, pointed out that this year’s budget is underway and the legislative session is about to close, prompting some to conclude that his department was not satisfied with the pace of developments.

On April 10, DGS Deputy Director Monica Hassan said that, “The Administration has committed to a process that includes strong community feedback for the disposition of the Sonoma Developmental Center property. As such, the state is coordinating with the Community Advisory Committee to hold a public town hall, after which, the WRT site assessment report will be released. There is no set timeline for the disposition of the site; however, the closure is on schedule for the end of the year.”

To date, that town hall meeting has not been scheduled, as WRT continues to realign its initial cost estimates to post-fire economic reality.

According to First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, local groups responded to the perceived timeline pressure by formulating a plan to develop some kind of trust, with the working title of “Eldridge Trust.” It would be a state-organized non-profit that would take over the job of deciding what to do with the property and get it into a self-sufficient state over a number of years, to be determined.

On April 16, members of the Glen Ellen Forum assembled at Dunbar School to voice their strong desire to have one or more seats at the table in deciding what happens to the SDC property. They were told at that meeting that there is a process already underway to explore a state-sponsored trust mechanism, possibly consisting of state and local trustees, to take over the transition.

“We need to make sure the powers that be recognize that SDC is in the middle of Glen Ellen, not adjacent,” said Forum member Vicki Hill. “Whatever planning takes place needs to recognize that fact. It is part of our fabric.”

Sonoma State takes an interest

Beginning last December, representatives from Sonoma State University (SSU) began attending SDC meetings, indicating a strong if vague interest in using the property. As a state agency, SSU could take all or part of the site, but their interest is nascent.

On April 17, the Rebuild Northbay Foundation awarded a $100,000 grant to SSU to explore possible uses of the SDC lands. The foundation was created by lobbyist Darius Anderson, founder of Platinum Advisors, a developer, and through Kenwood Investments, Inc., part owner of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Sonoma Index-Tribune, and Petaluma Argus-Courier.

Rebuild Northbay Foundation Executive Director Jennifer Gray Thompson said the university is exploring the need for housing for both fire victims and the growing Rohnert Park institution.

Joyce H. Lopes, Sonoma State University’s vice president of administration and finance and the campus’ chief financial officer, is also a Rebuild Northbay Foundation board member.

“SSU expressed an interest in SDC as a short term solution to faculty, staff, and displaced general public; however, without a grant to cover the feasibility cost, even the possibility of SSU coming to SDC was not possible,” Thompson said.

The $100,000 grant will be used to determine if SDC is an appropriate place for fire survivor and workforce housing, extension education, and conference facilities.

“No doubt there is a measure of curiosity, therefore it is worth stating that Darius Anderson, our founder, is not involved personally in any short term or long term development on the SDC property,” assured Thompson.

Keeping the community at the table

Given the unexpected pressure to get some structural clarity and funding for the transition process, on May 8 Supervisor Gorin will be asking her fellow supervisors to look at expending staff time to explore the legal and administrative complications surrounding trust models for the SDC. If that works out, she hopes to have funding and staff allocations in place by June.

State Senator Mike Maguire and Gorin have been working closely on the SDC closure process from the beginning.

“Senator McGuire and I made a commitment to have a community-driven planning process,” Gorin said. “If it is turned over to a trust, it will still have to be a community-driven process. How that works and the financing, I have no idea.”